Smokey Joe’s Cafe at the Canadian College of Performing Arts. A review.

Smokey Joe’s Café at the Canadian College of Performing Arts. A review.  Presented April 16-25, 2015 in Victoria BC.

Youthful energy and exuberance abound in Smokey Joe’s Café, the end-of-year On Broadway! production by the first and second year students of the Canadian College of Performing Arts. With no story line or dialogue Smokey Joe’s relies on staging and the ability of the artists to convey the emotional through line.

The College, nestled in the heart of Oak Bay beside St Mary’s Church, is surprisingly, even after 17 years, still unknown to many Victoria residents. And—it’s a shame. Theatre-goers often overlook the many fine offerings presented over the course of the year—Company C, the third year repertory company stages three shows (this year—Spring Awakening in collaboration with the Belfry Theatre; Sense and Sensibility in a site-specific work at St Ann’s Academy, directed by Glynis Leyshon; and Six Characters in Search of an Author directed by James Fagan Tait); the Year II students were phenomenal in Cities and Girls conceived and directed by Christine Willes—it stands as one of the highlights of my year so far; the TD Festival of New Works provides audiences with an opportunity to experience choreography, choral directing and playwriting by emerging young artists.

The end-of-year show has traditionally been performed at the McPherson Playhouse; in recent years productions ranged from Young Frankenstein to Footloose, Crazy for You and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Smokey Joe'sDirector and choreographer Darold Roles (assisted by Avery Brennan and Siobhan Barker) chose to mount Smokey Joe’s Café in the intimate environment of the Performance Hall at the College. Dan Costain sets the stage at the front, highlighted to the side with a two storey New York-style balcony and fire escape, and a runway between two rows of small cabaret tables where the audience is seated. The musicians (directed by Brad L’Écuyer) sit on the opposite side. This versatility allows for a maximum of possibilities and variety. During the show there are numbers with small ensembles, duos, quartets, solos and the full company (62 dancers and singers)—what a thrill to have the action up-close and personal. It’s an incredible feat to choreograph and direct in the smaller space.

Based on the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who gave us hits like Hound Dog, Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Love Potion #9) and conceived by Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid in 1994, Smokey Joe’s Café is the longest running revue in Broadway history (2,036 performances). Originally the cast numbered nine actors/singers.

Stylistically it owes much to the late 1950s and 1960s, although the opening and closing number In The Neighbourhood was written in 1974. It’s a simpler time, one of young love and mild rebellion, when roles were more clearly defined. Costumes by Shannon Carmichael showcase letter sweaters, swing skirts, buttoned-down shirts, tuxes and sparkles, sequins, lamé (Baby, That is Rock & Roll). It’s hard to choose where to pay attention—to the fancy footwork, wonderful singing or gorgeous costumes. There is a high level of detail and expertise in every aspect of the production—staging, music, lighting (R.J. Peters), sound (Simon Farrow), choreography—that will greatly please the discerning theatre-goer.

From crooning ballads and swinging up-tempo tunes, to toe-tapping rhythms and passionate pleas, the 39 songs display a full array of this period’s musical history. The quintet of accompanying musicians (l’Écuyer with Rainer Roth-sax, Jon Eng-drums/percussion, Rob Cheramy-guitar, James Young-bass) has collaborated previously on CCPA shows (Little Shop of Horrors) and represents decades of experience accentuated in solos during Baby That is Rock and Roll.

Some of the many highlights include the cheeky number Shopping for Clothes with Gavin Forbes clad in garish green plaid and dancing mannequins in vibrant-toned men’s suits; sultry Alexandra Willett in a slinky red dress and extravagant red feather boa in Don Juan; Saved featuring Kira Allen as a rocking gospel preacher with the full company; Lexy Young and her deep, low growl in Hound Dog; Gabe McDonald’s plaintive and desperate plea in I (Who Have Nothing); Aaron Wells, heart-broken in Spanish Harlem (featuring romantic ball-room and shadow dancing by Greg Liow & Alita Powell); Forrest Schuster’s deep bass in You’re the Boss, a sexy and innuendo-laden duet with Kira Allen; the powerful singers in I’m A Woman (Emily Blake, Sierra Kachan, Julie Mombourquette and Alexandra Willett). The show ends in utter celebration with the full company in Stand by Me.

Smokey Joe’s Café reminds us of the power of music to sculpt and represent our lives and points to the inherent and universal truths of love, passion and desire. The capable young performers complete a year, already filled with accomplishments, on a high-note; they have much to be proud of.

Smokey Joe’s Café, the Songs of Leiber and Stoller, directed and choreographed by Darold Roles
Canadian College of Performing Arts, Performance Hall, 1701 Elgin (Oak Bay)
April 16-25, 2015
Tickets: $20/25/30 via Eventbrite

Disclaimer: I was offered a complimentary ticket to attend Smokey Joe’s Café.

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